Review: Sam. The Good Person at The Bunker Theatre

Everyone wants to be liked; it’s a natural human instinct. Some of us worry about it more than others, true, but we all want to belong somewhere – and if we’re really honest, we’ve probably all told a little white lie or exaggerated a bit at some point to impress someone we admire. But what happens when that need for other people’s approval gets out of hand, and how far can you bend the truth before it snaps completely?

Photo credit: William Alder

Sam. The Good Person is set at a support group meeting, where regular attendee Sam has finally been persuaded to open up about his big problem: he’s so obsessed with what other people think of him that he’ll say and do literally anything, however detached from reality, to fit in. At first it’s funny, but a few panicked fibs in the heat of the moment soon begin to turn into active manipulation, and we’re ultimately left looking back and wondering if we too have fallen victim to his lies.

Writer and performer Declan Perring is a master storyteller with excellent comic timing. He switches moods, accents and characters in the blink of an eye, and engages very comfortably with the members of his support group, who are “played” by members of the audience seated in a circle around him. His story might sound extreme – is it really possible to have a five-year relationship based entirely on a fiction? – and yet the fact is despite Sam’s early and frank admission that he’s a compulsive liar, we nonetheless do immediately like and trust him. He’s funny, and endearingly self-conscious, and he seems to genuinely worry – albeit to an unhealthy degree – about how his actions affect other people, even if it’s something as innocuous as waiting for a kettle to boil in a quiet room. At first, he seems like someone we can all relate to.

Even later (once we’ve established he definitely isn’t someone we relate to) when we hear about – and see with devastating clarity, despite there being nothing to look at; a testament to the power of Perring’s physical performance – the horrific event that’s ultimately brought him to this group, we can’t help but feel bad for him and everything he’s gone through. And that only makes the play’s final twist all the more unsettling.

Photo credit: William Alder

Ironically in light of the subject matter, Stephanie Withers’ production has a feeling of great authenticity throughout, enhanced by the seating of members of the audience on stage. Though none of them is called on to say a word, their presence means that we don’t go in feeling that we’re watching an actor give a performance – a point that becomes increasingly key as the play goes on. There’s stellar work too from lighting and sound designers Will Alder and Nick Clinch, who perfectly keep pace with Sam’s mood in all its ups and downs. Just like his story, their work often makes for a deeply uncomfortable audience experience, which is reflected too in Perring’s spellbinding performance.

What’s most striking about Sam. The Good Person is the way it takes a perfectly normal, even admirable, sentiment – the desire to be a good person, someone others admire and want to be around – and twists it into something genuinely disturbing. Because we recognise ourselves in Sam early on, the play suddenly makes you feel you’re only one step away from following him down that dark path… This is a cleverly written, darkly humorous and exquisitely performed piece of theatre that will make you question everything you thought you knew about yourself and the people you love. It’s also a lot more fun than I just made it sound, so let’s hope this short run – which ends on Saturday – isn’t the last we’ve seen of Sam.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it…

Review: In Other Words at The Hope Theatre

Off the Middle’s Matthew Seager was inspired to write his debut play, In Other Words, by 10 weeks facilitating sensory stimulation workshops in a dementia care home during his last year of uni. A residency with the Lyric Hammersmith’s Emerging Artists Programme followed, and now In Other Words finds its way to the Hope Theatre, directed by Paul Brotherston.

The story follows Arthur and Jane throughout 50 years of their relationship, charting the devastating impact of Alzheimer’s disease on their marriage and life together. It’s an undoubtedly harrowing play to watch – don’t expect to leave without shedding a tear or several – but also contains a glimmer of hope. Because this is also a story about music and its incredible ability to anchor people in reality, even when little else remains of the person they once were.

Photo credit: Alex Fine
Photo credit: Alex Fine

Much of the play’s impact is felt in the performances of Matthew Seager and Celeste Dodwell, who are both devastatingly good in their roles as Arthur and Jane. In good times and bad, their relationship is 100% believable – as is Seager’s careful portrayal of dementia as Arthur gradually slips away, and Dodwell’s of Jane’s gut-wrenching grief. The whole play is unflinchingly, brutally honest about the experience of living with Alzheimer’s – not just for Arthur, but for Jane too, who stays at her husband’s side as he descends into a spiral of denial, confusion and rage, but not without privately confessing feelings of resentment, anger, and guilt at having failed to spot the signs and do something sooner.

Apart from one passing reference to middle age, it’s not totally clear how old the couple are meant to be or how quickly the disease is progressing, the only real hint of context in the Sinatra-led soundtrack. Even so, the two actors are clearly younger than their characters – a harsh reminder that dementia sufferers aren’t just “old people”, but people who were once young and full of life: dancing, falling in love, laughing, arguing, singing badly – just like the rest of us. The couple tell us their story together, looking back with tenderness on their happy times as well as the harder years, the love between them as alive as it was in the beginning. And through it all, one song – Fly Me To The Moon – has the power to reach out and heal any wounds, however deep they may be.

Photo credit: Alex Fine
Photo credit: Alex Fine

In a space too small for set changes (or indeed much of a set at all), lighting and sound design from Will Alder and Iida Aino combine to situate the action: in a busy pub with music playing in the background; in a living room so silent and full of pain that a ticking clock becomes the only sound; in the doctor’s office as Arthur struggles to remember three simple words… Each detail is spot on and beautifully observed, as are the scenes in which Arthur’s thoughts are drowned out by a wave of white noise and blue light that fills the space in moments when it all gets too much.

In Other Words makes no excuses and covers up none of the harsh details of living with dementia. But it also paints a picture of a love that endures – and will continue to endure – even beyond the cruellest of circumstances. Funny and heartbreaking, charming and brutal, this is a powerful debut that’s not to be missed… but remember to take tissues.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉